ABOVE PHOTO: LaRue Group founder Kirk Wardy helps Chef Naimah Rutling get her station ready for the Grand Tasting.
Or, how spending time at The LaRue Group’s “Chef Series Experience Grand Tasting” lifted my spirits and led to an appreciation of vegan cooking, artisan spirits, and some of the best chefs of color in our area.
By Denise Clay
With very few exceptions, the best ideas seem to come when someone asks just the right question.
Last Saturday night, I found myself at the Indigo Blue Design and Cultural Center experiencing the tasty answer to the question, “Where are all the chefs of color?”
During the Chef Series Experience Grand Tasting held at Indigo Blue in West Philadelphia, treats created by chefs and artisans of color ranging from vegan crab cakes to a vodka so smooth you can drink it straight were on the menu.
The evening was a production of The LaRue Group, and in addition to being able to sample the wares of the chefs, emcee Anne-Marie Green of CBS News led them through cooking demonstrations designed to give the audience some insight into the creative cooking process.
The LaRue Group is the brainchild of Kirk Wardy, a former video journalist at CBS3.
While covering the annual Casino Night for the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society, Wardy noticed that with few exceptions, the chefs invited to participate in the event all had one thing in common: they were all White.
“The only Black chefs that were there were sous chefs,” Wardy said. “That really struck me.”
Because Wardy has always had an interest in food, he regularly hits events like the Atlantic City Food Festival. When he went to the 2013 festival, he asked another African American chef, Monterray Keys, why Philly’s burgeoning food scene seems so devoid of color.
“[Key] told me ‘It’s just the way it is,” Wardy said. “We just cook. We can’t really do anything about it. But, you can.”
So Wardy and Keys exchanged phone numbers, but nothing really happened until Wardy injured his shoulder on the job in 2013, and he started to rethink his life, Wardy said.
The first Chef Series Experience event happened in 2014, and since then chefs and food artisans of color have been getting their moments in the sun both nationally (Miami, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Philadelphia) and internationally (Haiti, St. Croix, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic). For the chefs and artisans he works with, Wardy provides the kind of marketing assistance you can only get from someone who knows what interests news organizations.
“What I do is Brand Journalism,” Wardy said. “I let people know about the brands that we have because most people wouldn’t know about them. People have been seeking us out and we’re building a community of culinary, hospitality and travel professionals within [the Black] community.”
I’m glad that I got a chance to talk to Kirk about the LaRue Group because I’m glad to see a good friend do well.
But now that we’ve talked about how I ended up at Indigo Blue for a night of great food and spirits, let’s talk about the food and spirits themselves.
The theme, at least for me, of the Chef Series Experience was, “I don’t usually eat this, but…” because I found myself saying that a lot.
When I walked in, I had a glass of red wine from the Paul Charles vineyard in California. I’m not all that big a fan of red wine, but I liked this one because unlike most of the red wine I’ve had, it didn’t have a rude aftertaste. With some brandy, and the right mix of fruit, this wine would make a decent base for a great sangria.
I was just in time for a cooking demonstration from Judith Campbell, one of the owners of Sazon, a restaurant on Spring Garden Street that I used to pass all the time when I lived in Northern Liberties. The restaurant specializes in the cooking of Campbell’s native Venezuela.
When it comes to Latin cooking, I measure a restaurant by one thing: frijoles negros, or black beans. Because my first daily newspaper job at the Star Gazette in Elmira, New York didn’t pay very well, things like a good bowl of black beans and rice became near and dear to the heart of a budget that sometimes had no room for chicken.
Not only were Campbell’s black beans awesome, the rice, fried plantains, chicken empanadas and beef they were paired with were delicious too. As was, surprisingly enough, the tofu and tomato sauce. I don’t generally eat tofu, but I’d recommend it at Sazon.
In fact, there were a lot of great offerings for those who don’t eat meat.
When I went by Chef Tim Thomas’s table, I was given a “crab cake” sandwich. I put the “crab cake” in quotes because Thomas is the Chef du Cuisine at Flora Jenkintown, a fine dining vegan restaurant in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.
Using mashed corn and other ingredients, including Old Bay seasoning, of course, Thomas created a crab cake that could please any Marylander.
Next, I went to the table of a chef that I’ve interviewed before in this column, Chef Christopher Lee Abbott, or as he’s better known, Chef Kristov. I’ve tasted his excellent, health conscious gumbo at events including the annual “Philly’s Men Are Cooking” event thrown by the AKA’s Ivy Leaf Foundation, so I decided to try something different: his zucchini bread.
Again, zucchini isn’t a veggie I usually eat. I’m a spinach girl. But Chef Kristov’s deep brown bread had a rich flavor and texture. It had an almost chocolate taste.
Next, I visited another chef whose food I’ve tasted before. If you’ve never been to an event that Chef Naimah Rutling has catered and eaten her ceviche (a dish in which fish is poached with lime or lemon juice) or her sweet potato martinis with various fixings, you have truly missed something. She was serving an aronchini (breaded and fried risotto with cheese) that practically melted in your mouth.
Next week, I’ll talk about the spirits that went with some of this great food.
Leave a Comment